There may be a pointed, topical message or two in Tim Burton’s live-action remake of the Disney classic Dumbo, not to mention a subversive jab at the Mouse House itself, but you really have to squint to find them. The latest in Disney’s continuing attempt to plunder its brand of just about every animated classic in the company’s legendary library (Dumbo will be followed later this year by Aladdin and The Lion King), it’s almost certainly the least of those efforts to date, not to mention another in a long line of misfires for Burton himself.
The problem with Dumbo, as opposed to The Jungle Book or Beauty and the Beast (what I think are two of the better live-action reduxes), is that the original cartoon, made some 80 years ago, is a 64-minute model in simplicity for both its production and storytelling. It focuses squarely on the title animal, a cute little baby elephant with oversized ears, and his heartbreaking yearning for his mother as well as his new friendship with a plucky little mouse. The movie ends with Dumbo using his ears to fly, becoming a star in the circus (happily), and reuniting with his mother–with nary a dry eye in the house to boot.
Expanding that for a modern remake apparently required a lot more story, so the 2019 film almost relegates Dumbo himself (a wholly CG creation not nearly as expressive as the animated one) to supporting status while introducing a raft of human characters. It’s unfortunate, however, that none of these characters are given much of a personality, and that the good actors involved–Colin Farrell, Alan Arkin, plus Burton vets like Michael Keaton and Eva Green–all seemed largely bored with being there. Only Danny DeVito, another Burton alumnus, gives his performance some zing.
Farrell plays Holt, a one-time star horse trainer in Max Medici’s (DeVito) traveling circus who returns home from World War I, missing both his arm and his wife. She was another rider who has died and left their children in the care of their fellow performers until Holt’s muted homecoming. With the circus hitting tough times, the horse show has been canceled and Max puts Holt and his kids (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins) in charge of their elephants, one of whom, Jumbo, has just given birth to a new baby. Initially pegged as a star attraction, the little pachyderm is instead ridiculed for his floppy ears. This enrages his mother, whose aggressive behavior leads to her to be sent away.
When Holt’s kids discover that the heartbroken Dumbo can levitate himself with his ears, he finally becomes a star and revives Medici’s fortunes–enough to attract an amusement park entrepreneur named V.A. Vandevere (Keaton), who buys Medici’s circus outright and promises a bright future for all, even as he secretly plans to exploit Dumbo.
The idea of a ruthless entertainment conglomerate that sucks up every successful business it can find is certainly a rich one coming out of the Disney stable, and there are signs of the old Tim Burton in a scene in which the director metaphorically burns his employer to the ground. But that, not to mention a more pointed lesson about keeping animals in captivity, is lost amidst the tedious human melodrama and Ben Davis’ dusky, graying cinematography.
And sadly it’s Dumbo who suffers the most in his own movie. The CG-creature in the film is simply not as charming as the animated original and doesn’t display a whole lot of personality. Even the dynamic between him and Mrs. Jumbo–the heart of the 1941 film–is muted here, with the famous “Baby Mine” sequence almost done as an afterthought (the famous “Pink Elephants on Parade” scene is also remixed with unsatisfactory results). Only the scenes in which Dumbo gets to fly achieve any sort of magic, pathos and grandeur, and it’s in these passages where both Burton and the visual effects team finally get to shine for a few minutes.
One could argue, however, that Dumbo at least gets something of an emotional arc to play. The human cast mainly stands around, looking at Dumbo or each other, with the exception of Green who offers a graceful turn as Vandevere’s star aerial artist (she apparently did a number of the stunts herself). It’s amusing for a moment to see Keaton and DeVito together again, with their roles reversed after Burton directed them 27 years ago as Batman and Penguin in Batman Returns, but Keaton himself either comes across as distracted or overbearing.
Burton has never been anyone’s idea of a great storyteller, but his visual style and genuinely weird worldview helped propel so many of his early films–Beetlejuice, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman among them–to a kind of greatness. His resume since 2000, however, is littered with one IP trainwreck after another (Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows…urgh), and it’s hard to imagine he’s just doing anything these days but collecting a paycheck.
As mentioned earlier, Disney’s batting average with this series of live-action remakes of its animated gems is mixed so far. The Jungle Book, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast all mostly hit the mark, while Maleficent and Burton’s own Alice in Wonderland were painful to sit through (the latter in particular was unwatchable for long stretches). Dumbo may have been especially challenging to recreate, due to the brevity of the original, and it makes one wonder if the company may be going back to this well one too many times. Kids may enjoy this Dumbo, but one suspects that when they grow up, they’ll pull the original out for their own children instead of this piece of eye-filling but empty product.
Dumbo is out in theaters Friday, March 29.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye